Scientists from Australia’s Monash University have made what one professor is calling the most important development in fuel cell technology in the last 20 years. The scientists have managed to redesign fuel cells, so that in the future, they will make hybrid cars more reliable and cheaper to build.
And the breakthrough component in their design comes from Goretex, a popular outdoor and sporting clothing brand.
Applied to the layer of breathable fabric that Monash University’s Dr Bjorn Winther-Jensen says has revolutionized the outdoor clothing industry, is a newly designed and tested air-electrode that acts as both the fuel cell electrode, and catalyst. The layer is applied at just 0.4 of a micron in thickness, which measures out to be about 100 times thinner than a human hair.
“The same way as waste vapour is drawn out of this material to make hikers more comfortable to less prone to hypothermia, so it is able to ‘breathe’ oxygen into our fuel cell and into contact with the conductive plastic,” Dr Winter-Jensen said.
“The benefits for the motoring industry and for motorists are that the new design removes the need for platinum, which acts as the catalyst and is currently central to the manufacturing process,” said Monash University’s Professor Doug MacFarlane from the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science (ACES).
“Our reliance on platinum is making the likelihood of using fuel cells in everyday passenger cars, increasingly improbable. The cost of the platinum component alone of current fuel cells for a small car with a 100kW electric engine is more than the total cost of an 100kW gasoline engine. Also current annual world production of platinum is only sufficient for about 3 million 100kW vehicles, less than one-twentieth of the current annual global production of vehicles.”
So far, testing on the new fuel cell has been tested for periods of time up to 1500 hours of continuous use, using hydrogen as the fuel source. So far, no sign of degradation has occurred, or a drop in performance. The same tests also found that the oxygen conversion rates are comparable with that of platinum-catalyzed electrodes, but do not suffer the same poisoning effect.
“The small amounts of carbon monoxide that are always present in exhausts from petrol engines are a real problem for fuel cells because the platinum catalyst is slowly poisoned, eventually destroying the cell,” said Professor Maria Forsyth, Director of ACES at Monash. “The important point to stress is that the team has come up with an alternative fuel cell design that is more economical, more easily sourced, outlasts platinum cells and is just as effective.”